Recently I surveyed the alternative views of hell and noted some of the prominent Christians, alive and dead, who are known as proponents of these views. Today I’d like to do something similar on the antithesis of hell, namely heaven. Firstly, I will note that there is far more doctrinal clarity, emphasis, and dogmatism on the issue of hell, amongst traditional Christians. While there is a well-defined view of hell as “eternal conscious torment” in fire or metaphorical “outer darkness” and some clear alternatives to this, the doctrine of heaven is much more obscure.
So what is heaven? Where is it? In fact, is heaven really an “it” or is it a “state of being”? Most people have a vague, obscure, mythological concept of heaven, but if asked to write these down, many of these ideas would be seen as very speculative, imprecise, ambiguous, or even contradictory towards one another.
Unless of course they have encountered the writings of those who claim to have recently visited heaven, and have so conveniently published “for profit” novels outlining their trip. Aren’t we just the luckiest? For thousands of years of history, nobody, including the apostles, bishops, or the popes, knew what heaven was like, and now thanks to little Colton, we know everything! But if Colton is wrong (God forbid) what are the alternatives?
FIVE VIEWS OF HEAVEN
1. Heaven is ‘above’ in the clouds
Most of us who are well informed will quickly declare that the connection between semi-naked cupids, puffy clouds, harps, and the realm of heaven is silly and childish. We might even say it is a sacrilegious caricature to think heaven is merely in the clouds above our head. Yet unbeknownst to us, our thinking so is mostly the result of being born into an era ripe with scientific advancement, especially regarding astronomy and air/space travel.
The world of the Ancient Near East (ANE), in which the Bible was written, was filled with imagery that connected God and “heaven” with the clouds vertically above our heads. There are numerous biblical texts that paint the clouds the abode of God, for example Jacobs stairway to “heaven” which was essentially a staircase ascending upwards, into the clouds (Gen 28:12). Elsewhere there are references to Yahweh as the “rider of the clouds.” (Psalm 104:3; Daniel 7:13). Legitimate Bible scholars have argued that Baal’s official title was “the rider of the clouds”, and therefore the Jews “borrowed” that name to apply it to the true God. (1, 2)
Moreover, it isn’t merely the ANE where this idea finds prominence, but even within the New Testament Greco-Roman world. The NT text states that:
- Jesus ascended into the clouds above. (Luke 24:51 ,Acts 1:9-11)
- Jesus is also coming back from the clouds above. (Mark 13:26)
- The whole world will concurrently see Jesus in the clouds above (Revelation 1:7), which seems to assume a redefinition of current cosmology (the earth is round, thus the objects in the sky are only visible to part of the planet at once).
- Christians will be reunited with Jesus in the clouds above. (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
The apocalyptic fulfillment of early Christian eschatological anticipation is predominantly in “Heaven,”, defined as the realm physically above. Whether the early Christians (1) actually believed the clouds themselves were in fact “Heaven,” (2) ascribed to multiple-heaven theories, or (3) understood the clouds as a metaphor for something else is highly uncertain, but we know they used terrestrial language to ascribe the location of God’s throne.
And that location, has traditionally been in the clouds above, not some ethereal alternate dimension. That said, such a view is not likely to be popular today, except amongst the most scientifically illiterate cultures.
2. Heaven is a temporal earthly kingdom
At first glance, many Christians will argue this idea is preposterous and “unbiblical.” However, if we survey the history of Jewish thought, we will find that there have been widely different streams of thought about the afterlife. The New Testament describes a conflict between two groups of Jews.
- The first of these were the Pharisees (mostly middle class businessmen), and the second were the Sadducees (the elites, including most of the priests). (3)
- Both groups accepted the Torah as divinely uttered Scripture, yet only one of these groups believed in an afterlife, the others did not believe in a resurrection. This is even demonstrated in the New Testament. (Mark 12:18, Acts 23:8)
- The Sadducees, which included the high priest of the Hebrew faith and the Jerusalem Temple, and most of the Sanhedrin did not believe in any kind of afterlife, but did believe the very letters of the Torah was divinely inspired by God. (4)
To reiterate, the majority of Jewish religious leaders and priests strongly believed in every word in the “Old Testament” but did not believe in a resurrection from the dead or an afterlife. Probably due to passages like these: Psalm 30:9, Psalm 88:10, Psalm 115:17, Isa, 38:18, Ecc. 9:5, Ecc. 9:10, Job 7:9. It is perhaps for this reason that much of ancient Hebrew eschatology was restricted to temporal and terrestrial matters. Many Jews were expecting the kingdom of God to be an earthly kingdom, on a planet filled with mortals.
This corresponds with what many OT scholars have argued, that the afterlife did not play a dominant role in the Old Testament scriptures. While this may have been the dominant Jewish view, the New Testament is filled with anticipatory eschatological prophecy and Christians are not likely to hold this view.
3. Heaven is an eternal ‘Shalom’ on earth
What if heaven wasn’t really heaven? What if heaven was a condition of the earth? Immediately I recall being a child and overhearing older men in suits debate the issue. One quoted 2 Peter 3:10, saying that “the earth and its works will be burned up” and the other quoted something like “The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” (Psalm 37:29) I don’t remember if there was a resolution to this dichotomous tension, perhaps they are still going at it today.
While the Old Testament is mostly silent on the issue of the afterlife, there are a few passages that seem to eschew eschatological hope (I counted less than 100 verses out of 23,000+ OT verses, or less than half a percent) Yet all of these verses seem to be teaching that “Heaven” is not a magic kingdom in the sky, but rather a “shalom” on earth. For those who are computer literate, the Hebrew word shalom is like a .zip file; it is a small word that packs a huge transcendent meaning, it includes ideas of “completeness, peace, safety, welfare, health, prosperity, quiet, tranquillity, & contentment.” (5, 6)
The OT seems to convey the idea of Shalom returning to this tattered earth, likely as a restoration of Eden, the paradise that was lost.
- There are numerous descriptions of a peaceful time on the earth, for example Isaiah 2:4 which says “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (this makes us wonder: why do they need farming/fishing equipment? Do these bodies still require nutrition? And are there still nations?)
- There are descriptions of an earth free of predatory animals. Hosea 2:13 is one such passage. Another, more infamous, is Isaiah 11:6 “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb… and the calf and the young lion.” (Again, this brings up all manner of questions, such as: are there animals? What do they do? Do they live forever?)
- There are direct references to a restored Eden. “Indeed, the LORD will comfort Zion… her wilderness He will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:3) and “They will say, ‘This desolate land has become like the garden of Eden” (Ezekiel 36:35)
- Yet the OT is Not alone, many NT passages speak in very human terms. From “mansions” (John 14:2) to “rivers” that run. (Rev 21:2) Not only that, but the apocalypse of John shows “heaven” coming down to the earth as a gift (Revelation 21:10-11). In fact, every single NT description of heaven uses earthly ideas that are connected with our current existence. From gold (an element only worthy here because we humans decided to use it to represent value) to resurrected bodies that are physical and tangible. It seems that all of this fits very well with a renewed terrestrial existence in perpetual Shalom.
At the same time, some Christians (who adhere to a theological ideology called dispensationalism) have surmised these the eschatological OT passages must simply refer to another period called the “thousand year reign.” Although it would be strange to think that the Old Testament eschatological language was only concerned with a period that would last 1000 years, but silent about all of eternity. It would certainly seem like the OT has a strange view of priority.
Other views that are very similar to this include “this current earth will be destroyed, but God will make another earth in place of it and that earth will become our eternal dwelling place or ‘heaven.’”
4. Heaven is an ethereal ‘Magic Kingdom’
Based on anecdotal experiences, I think this is probably one of the more popular views of heaven today, in part promulgated by all of the tall tales of visits to heaven. At the same time, this view is strongly rooted in the human ability (and even tendency) to mythologize and fabricate sentimental fantasies about something that is meaningful. This view is in the same vein as that broadcast by the film What Dreams May Come (7).
Proponents essentially take everything that is human, tangible, rational, terrestrial, and attempt to create an existence which is opposite of that, and not only the opposite, but the most fantastic, ethereal, magical, opposite that can be imagined. And if you have seen Lady Gaga, you know a lot can be imagined.
Some examples of this ethereal magic kingdom sound more like the Chronicles of Narnia, but in any case they contain a mixture of paradox, mythology, human longing, sehnsucht, nostalgia, and biblical ideas of perfection:
- It is an existence in an unknown spiritual “place”, if it can even be called a place, where the laws of this universe are no more. There is no more time and dimensions cease to perform in ways we are accustomed to. The main impression is that things are “ethereally perfect” and can be described with earthly words, but are far from earthly.
- Magical or unusual things can happen, in fact anything imaginable can happen, so, for example, people can have wings and can fly around, (8) that is, if they are not riding on their rainbow colored horses (9).
- People are genderless beings that are transcendent, yet fully recognizable. These people can be instantly brought together by simply thinking, because distance, time, and space are no more. Not only that, but people can either be the same “age” that they were last seen, or the perfect age. Yet in all of this, they continue to be recognized as themselves. (10)
- Everyone simply knows everything and all things make sense. (11) There is an ethereal or enchanted, mental-cognitive-spiritual state of being.
- There are multiple layers or levels in this ethereal place. For example, the early church bishop Papias thought there were three layers of heaven, and based on how much “spiritual fruit” one produced on earth. (12) Others have hypothesized as many levels as the imagination can come up with.
- It’s like an eternal Disneyland, filled with rest and relaxation, no real purpose except to enjoy God’s love and rest, no real laws of governance, merely a state of being in a fantastical utopia. In many ways, it is described as a most abstract existence.
5. Heaven is swimming in the ‘ocean of God’
A very unique view, one that is probably unheard of by most people, is that which has been espoused by some Eastern Orthodox thinkers throughout the centuries. This view states that “Heaven and Hell are decidedly real, they are experiential conditions rather than physical places, and both exist in the presence of God. (13) Principally neither are separate physical locations, but both are types of subjective experience as a result of being hurled into the intangibly infinite essence of God.
- God is the ultimate reality, and there can be no existence apart from the divine omnipresence, what matters is not being “with God” or “apart from God” but rather our predispositions “towards God.”
- For those who are Gods children, being embraced by the ultimate reality of God is the greatest joy. For those who hate God, it is like falling down into a thousand utterly dark chasms.
- Consider my favorite example of this, imagine that God is a vast ocean, the saltwater fish and the desert lizard experience this ocean in two completely different ways. The fish is at home in this habitat and swims in delight, the lizard is engulfed by the raging torrents of water and dragged into its murky depths.
- This view was not the dominant view, but was certainly represented well by numerous early church leaders, including St Ignatius, St Basil, St Gregory, St Cyril of Jerusalem, and St John Chrysostom. (13)
Such thinking is not likely to be found in Western Christianity, which is based on a far less abstract form of thought, and leans heavily towards biblical literalism. However, there seems to be a small rise of Eastern Orthodox thinking amongst some protestants (14), and this view seems (though I have no true way to gauge this) to be gaining some ground.
So where is heaven?
So what do we really know about the place or realm we call heaven? Numerous theological books have been published about it. (15, 16, 17, 18, 19) Multiple views can be had about it, perhaps even a mixture of all of them (in some quasi-paradoxical way that we don’t understand.) But at the root of it all, heaven is probably not like we imagine.
Personally, I haven’t the foggiest idea, though I am leaning to the fact that the Old Testament definitely teaches #3, that #2 would definitely be the letdown of the millennium, the New Testament appears a mixture of #1, #3, and #4, and that number #5 sounds terribly intriguing, Yet, it appears that after the amusement of tantalizingly ethereal imagery dies down, most of these can appear dull and boring, and hopefully that means we are still not thinking about this correctly.
On this, N.T Wright says that “there is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die.” Nonetheless, the “traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope.” He continues:
“heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God, so that “riches in heaven” simply means “riches in God’s presence.” But then, by derivation from this primary meaning, heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them. It is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth. God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, so that they can be brought to birth in the new heavens and new earth” (20)
In essence, one thing we can surmise, is that “heaven [up there] is not our home.”